What Pareto & Parkinson Can Teach Us About Productivity

I recently read a fascinating book called The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. The premise: what would your life look like if you took retirement off of the table? How would you arrange your work situation now so that you aren’t just angling for a better retirement? As Ferriss puts it, “When you run so fast to get somewhere you miss half the fun of getting there.”

Now, Ferriss isn’t a Christian, so his main goal is simply to maximize the fun he has in life. And there are plenty of rather suspect pieces of “wisdom” scattered throughout the book. But I resonated with a couple of his central theses: too many of us burn ourselves out with unsustainable work patterns, and we do so by being productive at things that don’t matter. As he says, “The worst kind of inefficiency is efficiency in things that don’t matter. There is a better way.

Two “laws” undergird Ferriss’ thesis—both of which are simple enough in the abstract, but difficult to actually put into practice. However, if people could learn to consistently apply these two laws, they would find themselves more effective and less frazzled.

Law #1: Pareto’s Law

Vilfredo Pareto, a “wily and controversial” Italian economist of the late 19th century, came up with the 80/20 principle that has been widely repeated since. The principle: 80% of the outputs result come from 20% of the inputs. You can say this in any number of ways:

  • 80% of consequences flow from 20% of the causes.
  • 80% of results come from 20% of effort and time.
  • 80% of profits come from 20% of products and customers.

Ferriss points out that most endeavors are like learning to speak a foreign language. To be correct 95% of the time requires six months of concentrated effort, whereas to be correct 98% of the time requires 20-30 years. We should focus on that 98% level of greatness in a very few areas, and be content with 95% fluency for the rest.

The converse of Pareto’s Law is true as well: 80% of problems come from 20% of sources.

So the key to applying Pareto’s Law—in business matters or in personal life—is simple:

  1. Find out which 20% of sources are causing 80% of your problems.
  2. Find out which 20% of sources are causing 80% of your desired outcomes. (Ferriss includes people in this category.)
  3. Eliminate the 20% of problem-sources and do only what you need in order to maintain the 20% of positive-sources.

As you might imagine, Pareto’s Law can be a harsh task-master. Christians should rightly object that we can’t simply cut out the 20% of people that we find the most frustrating. (Viewing people as “problem-sources” anyway is more than a little questionable.) And not all work positions accord people the freedom to choose what they will focus on and what they can ignore. So take Mr. Pareto with a grain of salt.

But there is something here that all of us can learn from. The goal of Pareto’s Law is to be more discerning and less active: “Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.”

Trimming down the 20% of headache-inducers is not easy. That’s because we all labor under the delusion that more time spent on something means better output. But not so. Enter . . .

Law #2: Parkinson’s Law

Simply stated, Parkinson’s Law states that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the “magic of the imminent deadline.” A two-week project can usually be done in 24-hours at the same level of excellence, and the short deadline forces us to focus only on the most essential. The trick is to impose deadlines on yourself instead of allowing the panic of procrastination to kick-start that period of intense productivity.

This is by no means natural. After all, we’re hard-wired to think that working for more time means being more productive. So we find tasks to fill up a 50-hour workweek when we might accomplish twice as much in half the amount of time. We use time poorly because most office environments encourage it: “The wasteful use of time is a matter of bad habit and imitation.

Put together, Pareto and Parkinson go something like this: “Identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to your desired outcomes [Pareto] and schedule them with very short and clear deadlines [Parkinson].” Listen to Pareto and Parkinson, and you’ll find yourself getting more done and feeling less frantic.